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Advice / Succeeding at Work / Getting Ahead

Your Guide to Smart Body Language in the Conference Room

So you’re prepping for a big meeting. You’ve done your research on the topic, prepared a presentation (or thoughtful questions to ask the speaker), and picked out the perfect suit. You’re ready, right?

Actually, there’s something else to consider: Your body language—which can often make a stronger impression than the words you say or the work you do.

Whether you’re a leader or a follower, the conference room represents a minefield of nonverbal communication that could fast-track or sabotage your ambitions. And it’s important to be aware of the often-subliminal factors that can impact the way your colleagues and boss view you.

So let’s take some all-too-common body-language scenarios, and start tr­anslating.

Scenario 1: For newbies

After a few months of hard work, you finally get invited to a brainstorming meeting in the glass office with the mahogany conference room table. You grab a seat, place your hands in your lap and sit compactly to make room for more people. As soon as your boss starts to speak, you—eager to learn—hunch over your legal pad and commence rapid-fire note-taking.

GOOD: You sat at the table.

In her buzz-worthy TED Talk about why there are so few female leaders, Facebook’s Chief Operating Officer Sheryl Sandberg exhorts women to confidently sit alongside men. Your colleagues will value your thoughts more if you are (literally) on equal footing. If you’re huddled in a seat in the corner, your thoughts are often perceived as less important. “No one gets to the corner office by sitting on the side rather than at the table,” Sandberg says.

BAD: You allowed yourself to get squished.

This is a common mistake among women, says Dr. Lois P. Frankel, a prominent executive coach, corporate trainer, and author of Nice Girls Don’t Get the Corner Office: 101 Unconscious Mistakes Women Make That Sabotage Their Careers. She argues that the use of space makes a statement about our confidence and sense of entitlement. “The more space you take up, the more confident you appear.”

Look at how men and women sit on an airplane and stand in elevators. On an airplane, men are more likely to sit down and spread out using both armrests, whereas women tend to keep their elbows tucked in close to their sides. And while both sexes are conscious of making room for others when the elevator gets crowded, you’re more likely to find a woman cowering in a corner, for fear of taking up too much space, Frankel says.

Same goes for the conference room. You don’t have to be a diva to have earned a comfortable spot at the table. So un-tuck your arms, put your hands on the table, and claim your space!

GOOD: You took notes.

No matter how many positive body-language vibes you send out during the meeting, failing to even bring a solitary sheet of paper and pen into the conference room gives the impression that the discussion isn’t important to you. And that’s not going to get you anywhere.

Another way to show you’re engaged is to lean forward and nod slightly. (No bobble-heading, though—it’s distracting.) These movements will send signals to the speakers that you’re engaged and processing the information.

BAD: You took notes frantically

Have you ever left a meeting with a legal pad chock-full of notes, only to see your peers and boss only have a couple of ho-hum words at the top of their papers? It’s disconcerting. (“How did they do that? Don’t they need the nitty-gritty details, too?”)

Then, you get a few smug thoughts. (“They’ll come to me when they forget what was discussed.”)

Notice, though, that rarely happens. While there are times that detailed notes are needed, copying down every spoken word and PowerPoint diagram also sends out the “juvenile” vibe. It’s better to synthesize the information as it comes in.

Jot down the main ideas, and spend the rest of the time giving some much-needed eye contact and a few of those intentional nods. They’ll go a long way in establishing subliminal rapport.

Situation 2: For Managers

Recently promoted, you’ve been tasked with presenting at the quarterly meeting of all the big wigs. And boy, are you ready. You’ve fleshed out your talking points, memorized your presentation, and skillfully peppered your script with a couple of well-timed (and seemingly unscripted) jokes. You take your spot to the right of the board, and at the end of the presentation, you face your colleagues and cross your arms. “Any questions?” After a pregnant pause and no response, you sit down.    

GOOD: You’re prepared.

Nothing says “this is going to be bad” than someone who fumbles with note cards and spends their time reading PowerPoint slides, rather than looking at the audience.

But beyond knowing what you’re going to say, what makes a presentation engaging? Frankel recommends you “break the silhouette.” Take your arms from your sides and integrate gestures with your message. Emphasize points by counting them on your fingers. And even if you’re nervous, no hand-wringing allowed. No excuses.

BAD: You stood still.

Let’s refer to Frankel’s point about taking up space. Women often are plagued by the same unconscious space-saving tactics, even when they’re at the front of an open room. They tend to stand in one place, moving only slightly within a few feet. But without enough movement and gesturing, the overwhelming impression conveyed is that of being “demure, careful, unwilling to take risks, timid, or frightened with little to contribute,” Frankel writes. And that all has nothing to do with the content of the presentation!

Frankel suggests walking side to side, forward and back, covering about 75% of the available space.

Also, plan ahead. If you know there’s an uninspiring podium in the conference room, request a handheld microphone before the meeting. You’ll be able to move about more freely.

GOOD: You faced the group.

Orienting your body toward your audience helps with voice projection and also makes you appear more approachable, as you (literally) open your space for discussion. It also gives them a clear view of your facial expressions. A classic 1967 study by Dr. Albert Mehrabian at the University of California at Los Angeles found that the total impact of a presentation is based on words used (7%), tone of voice (38%), and body position, facial expressions, hand gestures, and other nonverbal communication (55%).

BAD: You crossed your arms.

By crossing your arms at the end of your presentation, you unknowingly closed that open line of communication. Studies show audiences are less likely to respond to someone whose arms are crossed because it gives the impression that the conversation is closed or that the speaker is guarded and insecure. Instead, smile and keep your arms bent at your sides, poised to begin gesturing when it’s your turn to speak.

So, in your next meeting, think about the messages you’re sending—not just with your words, but with your body. While unconscious mistakes have the potential to stall your career, these simple techniques will leave a first (and lasting) impression of poise and competency.

Photo of business meeting courtesy of Shutterstock.